The Black Halos are back in black


By Steve Newton

There couldn’t be a more appropriate local group opening for the New York Dolls at the Commodore tonight (September 1) than the Black Halos. The hard-rocking quintet performed twice–once at the now-defunct Ms. T’s, then again at the Pic Pub–as a Dolls tribute band under the name the New West Dolls. Black Halos vocalist Billy Hopeless is a fanatical follower of the seminal Big Apple trash punks, so you can bet that he’ll be roaming backstage after the warmup, Sharpie in hand, hoping to score David Johansen’s autograph.

“I’m really looking forward to telling him how much I liked his last band, the Harry Smiths,” says Hopeless, sipping on a Coke. “And Sami Yaffa from Hanoi Rocks is playing bass, so I’ll be taking my Hanoi albums and goin’ ‘Hey Sam, sign these!’

“The rest of the guys met [Dolls guitarist] Sylvain Sylvain in Texas,” he adds. “They ran into him out drinking one night, and he was like, ‘Hey, bring some girls to the show.’ And they were going, ‘What are you doing askin’ us to bring girls to the show? You’re Sylvain Sylvain!’

He might not be the colossal chick magnet he was back in ’73, but to Hopeless and his bandmates, Syl Sylvain is still the real deal. The Black Halos will surely be going all out to impress their heroes at the Commodore, and, according to the band’s Web site (, that balls-out approach to playing live can be painful.

“It’s a contact sport,” quips Hopeless. “I know every guitar in this band personally now. On our first tour with Denyss [McKnight], our new bass player, he hits me on the head with his bass, blood starts spewing, and I’m looking going, ‘Oh yeah, you’re one of us, welcome to the band.’ ”

These days the raunchy tunes accompanying Hopeless’s reckless on-stage antics are mostly culled from the Halos’ third CD, Alive Without Control. It’s their first release on the California-based Liquor and Poker label, and first since reforming after a messy 2002 breakup sparked by the departure of original bassist Matt Camirand and guitarist Rich Jones.

Before Liquor and Poker, the Halos recorded for Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop Records. “When Sub Pop signed us they were looking, going ‘Okay, we’ve got this band Murder City Devils, and we’ll get these guys the Black Halos, and we’ll build this rock army, ’cause rock ‘n’ roll’s gonna be the next new big thing.’ And when it didn’t turn out that rock ‘n’ roll was gonna be the next new big thing-but still have a passionate following-I think they sort of dropped the ball on everyone.”

While the Black Halo’s label is different, the band’s producer remains the same. Veteran Emerald City knob-twiddler Jack Endino, best known for helming Nirvana’s early work, helped the boys bring the noise for a third time. Original members Hopeless, guitarist Jay Millette, and drummer Rob Zgalic have been bolstered by the addition of bassist McKnight and guitarist Adam Bevcare.

“Adam’s amazing to have in the band,” Hopeless raves. “First time we toured the U.S. we met him. He was in another band called American Heartbreak, and I looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘We’re gonna be in a band together some day, and that band’s gonna be the best band we can both be in.’ And now years later finally he’s in, and I can’t say anything bad about it. It’s stronger and darker, and there’s more anger.”

Hopeless takes a breather from the self-promotion to display a few of his colourful tattoos. There’s one that reads Fucked From the Start, the title of a song on the Black Halos’ first album that was written about drug casualty Pete Cleaver of Death Sentence. Also stitched in ink is an accurate depiction of the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

“My dad just died,” Hopeless reveals, “so I was thinking about getting a steam engine tattooed on me for him, ’cause he loved steam engines.”

Combine his extensive skin art with the messy dyed-black hair, black eyeliner, leather dog collar, and Japanese Skull Skates T-shirt, and Hopeless looks about as punk rock as they come. It’s an image he’s proud to convey as the group heads off to L.A. the day after our interview to shoot a video for the new disc’s autobiographical leadoff track, “Three Sheets to the Wind”.

“Travelling the world with this band, you realize that punk rock is what Vancouver’s really known for,” he declares. “I mean, I can talk to people in Japan and they’ll bring up bands like D.O.A. and the Subhumans. Or I’ll mention one of my obscure favourites like Curious George and they’ll go, ‘Curious George!’ And I’ll be like, ‘How do you know Curious George?!’ ”

While Hopeless covets his role as ambassador for the Vancouver punk scene, he harbours no illusions that the latest Black Halos CD will see him swimming in cash. “Nah, never,” he says with a laugh. “It’s funny, I think my favourite bands-including the Dolls-never were financially successful. But that’s gold, they’re golden, their fans have still stuck with them and lasted. So there’s no expectations or anything. I’m just glad to be able to make the kind of music we like.”

in + out

Billy Hopeless sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On the Black Halos skateboards manufactured by Skull Skates:
“It was so cool to go, ‘Wow, I remember when the Social Distortion skateboards came out, and now we’ve got our own skate decks. Beautiful!’?”

On eating producer Jack Endino’s neon-green popcorn:
“It’s some weird vegetarian popcorn that he had and it tastes terrible, but it’s highly addictive. I like neon green a lot, so the idea of eating neon green really sorta hit me.”

On the band’s out-of-control live show:
“It’s funny-people go, ‘Oh, I’ve seen the Black Halos. They’re dangerous.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re dangerous to ourselves.’?”

On whether he might be getting a little old for the gruelling world of punk-rock:
“I don’t even know how old I am anymore. I don’t pay attention to that. I’m 30-something.”

On his previous role as a contributor to local alternative-music monthly the Nerve:
“I don’t write for Nerve anymore. I’m too busy with this. I’d write freelance stuff and I’d bounce around. But most people don’t want to read an interview with Suzi Quatro. Me, personally, I love to read an interview with Suzi Quatro. She was Leather Tuscadero-come on!”

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